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Monday, 12 January 2009

Time (2006)

Kim Ki-duk has one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in Korean cinema, though his work seems to be better received in the west. I've found him an intriguing filmmaker, even though it's pretty obvious to me that I'm not catching all the nuance and symbolism that he throws into his stories. That does't stop me coming back for more though. This one has to do with perception and identity and follows a young lady called Seh-hee, who given the circumstances of the film is played by two different actresses.

Initially she's played by Park Ji-yeon and she's the jealous girlfriend of Ji-woo. She's crazy about him (that word is used more than once) and is highly jealous of any attention other women may throw his way. There seems to be quite a lot of this because he obviously has charisma to spare, but whether this goes beyond basic chemistry is a question that isn't answerered. My impression is that Ji-woo isn't cheating with anyone at all but is happy to look at these lovely young ladies to appreciate the scenery, as after all he's a photographer by vocation who must look at the world with a photographer's eye.

However Seh-hee wants to do something about it. This sort of thing drives her nuts because she's seriously in love with him and wants him all to herself. So she gets abusive to women who look at him or talk to him and even persuades him to pretend that she's someone else in bed, anything so that he doesn't have to concentrate on what she calls her 'same boring face'. Of course her face isn't boring at all and it's pretty apparent that it's not him she's worried about but her own lack of self esteem making her think that he'll leave her for someone else.

So Seh-hee thinks back to an incident at the very beginning of the film, when she bumps into a lady leaving an 'aesthetic clinic' that carries a sign reading 'Do you want a new life?' She moves out of her apartment without providing a forwarding address, discontinues her phone service and becomes completely unfindable to Ji-woo. To all intents and purposes she's dropped off the face of the plant. Really she goes back to the clinic to get plastic surgery to become a new woman, then 'meets' and pursues Ji-woo from her new job as a waitress at the Room & Rumour cafe he frequents.

Quite what she wants to accomplish is a good question, because the chaotic emotional situations she finds herself in are hardly surprising. Does she really want Ji-woo to wait six months for her to come back from her self-imposed exile, but then fall in love with her all over again with her new face? How could she think anything with such mutually exclusive goals could all end up happily? Of course while most of the film isn't surprising in the slightest, Kim Ki-duk has more to say than just the obvious. There's a pretty vicious change of direction that is as surprising as it's completely appropriate, and once we get to that point we can't help but ask ourselves what he's leaving for the end: is this going to be a happy story or something disastrous?

The story is tight, the direction good and the cinematography excellent. Kim Ki-duk has a photographer's eye himself and his films are never free of some wonderful imagery. It's the acting that really carries this one though, because the two leads are both amazing. Ji-woo is played by Ha Jung-woo, who carries every aspect of a pretty deep role superbly. While Park Ji-Yeon is decent as the former Seh-heh, Seong Hyeon-a is even better as the new Seh-heh, or See-hee as she calls herself. I haven't seen Ha before but Seong is the young lady who impressed me hugely in a Korean horror film called Cello. This is my first chance to see her act in something else and she's even better here than there and more desirable to boot. Unfortunately if IMDb can be believed (and it can't always when it comes to foreign films) this seems to be her last film appearance to date. At least there are seven previous roles for me to track down though.

And as for all that obscure symbolism that Kim Ki-duk is renowned for, it's far less obscure here. Unlike something like The Bow, which is a cinematic painting that invites us to work out what it all means, or even Samaritan Girl which got pretty cryptic on occasion, this one's pretty straight forward. He even drops major hints about the theme, in dialogue or in the choice of karaoke song that Ji-woo selects at a party, a month after she's left: 'If time never stops running, can I forget you like a dream?' This isn't a forgettable movie; it's powerful and effective. It may even be my favourite Kim Ki-duk out of the four I've seen thus far, but somehow I'm still seeing The Bow in my mind's eye. That film is deeply resonant, and I doubt this one will resonate anywhere near as much, Seong Hyeon-a or not.

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